© 2006

Music to my Bionic Ear
by Robyn Carter

As far back as I can recall, I always enjoyed music.  Prior to my becoming deaf, I played the piano, violin, clarinet, oboe, and the entire recorder group.  At age 12, I wanted to be a professional musician.  By 16, my hearing was deteriorating rapidly, so I gave up the violin, but clung on for dear life to the rest. The clarinet and oboe started sounding awful as well, so I gave them up too.
My sole stint at being a professional musician was for 6 months, while overseas.  I was nearly 18 and I had a job as a pianist in a pub in between performances by a jazz band. After I returned home from overseas, and as I moved into my 20s, I lost further hearing.  I gave up playing the piano, and bought a keyboard.  For some reason, the keyboard was easier to hear through a hearing aid than a piano.  For a while I managed, until I had my cochlear implant at age 31, and then the keyboard sounded terrible.
With the cochlear implant, the keyboard now sounded worse than a piano, so I returned to playing the piano. I continue to enjoy this type of music but it has always been, and still is, hard work.  To get the most out of it, I need to play it regularly, or else my implant makes it sound peculiar again.

In spite of these peculiar sounds, I still love music.  There's nothing like a great beat that gets my feet tapping.  It makes me want to sing and dance, even though I'm terrible at both. I've gotten to the age where I do sing and dance without worrying about anyone else, although it still embarrasses my daughter.
But I digress.   When I first received the implant, music did not sound anything like I remembered.  It was horrible, and would send shivers up my spine, much like fingernails down the blackboard.  But I was determined to make something of it.  I went out and purchased a stereo, something I had not owned for a long time.  It looked more like a jukebox and held 50 CDs at once.  The sound quality was excellent (or so I was told).  Next, I bought a selection of all my favorite CDs.  At first, they sounded weird, but I persevered playing each song over and over again.  After playing one song 20 times, I began to recognize the beat, then the music and, lastly, I was able play these songs 'quietly'.
After several weeks of training myself to listen to the stereo, I started playing the radio in my car while driving to work.   I began to recognize songs that I vaguely remembered and was able to sing along.  In order for this to work though, I had to turn the volume up on the radio and the volume down on the implant.  This effectively cut out the road noise in the car so I could concentrate on the music.  The only problem was that the car simply vibrated to the sound and I would get funny stares from people in nearby cars.  I even lipread one saying "she's got that music up so loud she'll go deaf"!  I wanted to wind down my window and say 'I AM deaf' but the lights changed to green and they took off, no doubt in a hurry, so they wouldn't go deaf themselves!
While my music problems were solved in the car, my music issues at home were not.  Not everyone in the apartment wanted to listen to my music, so I decided to purchase a small transistor radio. I even managed to find someone who was knowledgeable about cables and was able to hook me up from the radio to my implant.  I'm talking about the old box processor I used to wear that had a 3.5mm plug at the top of the processor, not this tiny behind-the-ear technology we have now.  It was great!  The sound was fantastic and I had no problems with background noise.  The cable cut the microphone off at the ear, and only allowed me to hear the radio.
So now, not only was music available to me but I was able to listen to talk-radio stations.  Unfortunately, I soon became bored with the talk radio.  It was difficult at first to understand anything but the headline news.  Sometimes, I would manage to grasp half of a headline and the rest was too jumbled to make sense of it.  It also created some anxiety not knowing what was said, especially if I heard part of a news event, such as 3,000 people killed in [unable to hear the rest of the report].  So I would wonder for the rest of the day how and where 3,000 people were killed, how and why?  After continuously plugging myself into the radio each night, I eventually learned to make sense of what is being said and now feel secure that I am not missing anything.
As of this year, 2006, it has been 13 years since I first received my cochlear implant.  I had the good fortune to visit America in February 2006, and the first shops I visited were the computer and electronics stores.  I wanted to purchase items that would be cochlear-implant friendly.  I purchased an iPod shuttle for a very good price and made sure to see that I would be able to connect it to a cable to make it accessible to my implant. Although I did not have the needed cable with me, I decided to make the purchase and take the chance.  I figured I could always give the iPod to my daughter as a Christmas present if it did not work out for me.
Naturally, my daughter was hoping it wouldn't work, as she wanted that iPod. We loaded up some songs on it through her laptop, and I put the cochlear implant's radio audio cable into the socket where the headphones would go. I switched it on and I was in business.  The music on the iPod was clear as a bell. It was far better quality than I had received from the radio.
I now use the iPod when I'm at the gym and it helps keep me healthy, fit and focused. I know exactly how long my gym program is and in what order I do it.  Without the iPod, I could only run for about 3 minutes before I would have to stop.  When I use the iPod, I can run for 20 minutes before I need to collapse. So the iPod definitely helps me take my mind off what I'm actually doing.  Even when I've finished my 2-hour workout, if the music is still playing, I still have enough energy left over to virtually dance out of the gym.
I have been known to burst out singing at the gym.  Since I can't hear myself, or anything else except the music, I think no one else can either. My daughter assures me that everyone in the place can hear me. Sometimes, I even have to try and stop myself from dancing when I'm lifting weights, as I've been told it would be very uncool!!  Live and Learn!
To try and offset some of this enthusiasm, I've reverted to signing the songs in sign language rather than singing them.  It helps a little, I think, but I still get a few odd looks.  Especially on the treadmill.  Oh well, the important thing is, it makes me happy and feel good about myself.
If anyone would like more information about setting yourself up with the iPod/radio and how to get it up and running with the implant cables, please don't hesitate to e-mail me at carterr@ihug.co.nz.  I'm more than happy to help.
Robyn Carter
New Zealand

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